Inside Australia’s darkest night
Just after midnight on Sunday, August 7, 1994 at Tasty nightclub, one of Melbourne's most popular gay venues, the music suddenly stopped.
As many as 40 police officers burst into the nightclub, shouting orders through a megaphone and shining torches in faces. Over several hours, hundreds of patrons were stripsearched, often in full view of each other.
No one was permitted to leave while the raid was underway. Anyone who protested was charged with hindering a police operation. In the end, just two people were arrested for drug possession.
Officially known as Operation Maze, the raid was widely considered an attack on Melbourne's gay community under the pretence of a drug bust. Twenty five years on, it's remembered as an important event for gay activists.
A NIGHT OF PANIC
Located in Melbourne's Flinders Lane, Tasty attracted a predominantly gay and transgender clientele. It was notorious for its "grope maze", a dark area in a backroom where patrons pleasured themselves and had sex.
Liston was 21 years old and had spent the night at a friend's birthday party before heading to "the best club in Melbourne." He was standing near the bar with his friends "when the music just stopped and then the lights came on".
"We were told to put our hands on our heads immediately (and) people around me started panicking," he tells news.com.au.
Hours went by as the patrons queued up to be searched. Liston had a disposable camera, and when he saw his friends lined up against a wall with their hands up, he quickly snapped a photo when the police officers weren't looking.
"I didn't know at the time the importance of that picture," he says.
When it was his turn to be searched, he was forced to strip naked and bend over in front of a group of people. His camera was found and briefly confiscated, but he told the police officer it contained only photos from a birthday party, and he was allowed to keep the roll of film.
"I was told to turn around and to touch my toes, the torch light was shined onto my bum, and I was told to pull my cheeks apart," he says.
"As I was putting on my clothes, I heard a cop telling another guy to pull his foreskin back. I thought, what could possibly be in his foreskin?"
At that point, Liston says, "The mood changed." Many patrons were becoming restless. Fear turned to outrage.
"It became apparent that what was happening was morally unjust."
A PUBLIC OUTCRY
Rumours had swirled for weeks that a raid was going to take place, but no one had anticipated its scale. The lack of arrests and the conduct of the police officers led many to view Operation Maze as an attack on the gay community.
Jason Prior was 24 years old and had spent the night at Tasty with his boyfriend when the raid began. He describes the night as "surreal".
"They (the police officers) came screaming through the club," he tells news.com.au.
"We were at the back of the club so we were some of the last to be searched. The police officers we had were actually quite nice (but) some were horrid."
In the following weeks, the deputy ombudsman received dozens of complaints about the officers conducting the raid. Some patrons described being shoved, dragged and grabbed by "the scruff of their neck".
Others claimed the officers didn't change their gloves between searches and refused to let them use the bathroom for hours. Many reported being verbally abused, including being subjected to or overhearing homophobic remarks.
Days after the raid, Liston sold his photo to The Age newspaper. They ran it on their front page, sparking a wave of public outrage.
"As a community we were still struggling for acceptance, so to be so openly vilified really annoyed a lot of people," Prior says.
FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE
In November 1994, the deputy ombudsman published a report calling the actions of the police officers who conducted the raid "totally unreasonable". He found that the club "was treated differently because it is a gay club".
A group of Tasty nightclub patrons subsequently launched a class action against the Victoria Police for false imprisonment and assault. The legal challenge was led by Gary Singer, a lawyer who was at Tasty on the night of the raid.
Though Liston was living in Perth at the time and studying at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, he returned to Melbourne to testify. He recalls seeing police officers in the courtroom "scoffing, laughing and just trying to intimidate me".
The harassment got so bad that he was advised by his lawyer to move out of his home in Melbourne in case it was raided.
"The police had my home address," Liston says. "It was feasible that my home could get broken into to scare me, or for the evidence, the pictures I took, to be stolen."
To be safe, he stayed somewhere else for a few weeks, but still went to court to give evidence. Finally, in May 1996, a judge ruled in favour of the Tasty patrons.
More than 200 patrons were awarded compensation. Liston was offered $10,000.
"Some got more, some got less," he says. "At the time, $10,000 when I was a uni student in the mid-90s was a lot of money to me."
For Prior, the class action was about more than the money. It sent an important message that the gay community was "a force to be reckoned with".
The total cost to Victoria Police is thought to be somewhere around $6 million. It almost certainly would have been higher, but many Tasty patrons never came forward, likely not wanting to out themselves as gay.
After the ruling, then Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett labelled the raid "disturbing" and "over the top". But it would be 20 years before Victoria Police formally apologised to the patrons of Tasty.
In 2014, on the 20th anniversary of Operation Maze, acting chief commissioner Lucinda Nolan offered a "sincere apology" on behalf of the force, saying the raid had caused "distress" and worsened the relationship between police and the gay community.
CEO of Equality Australia, Anna Brown OAM, who campaigned for the historic apology, tells news.com.au the apology was "an important moment of acknowledgment and healing for the LGBTIQ community".
However, she says "there's no denying the legacy of past police practices lives on in the memories of many members of the LGBTIQ community".
"We still have a long way before trust can be rebuilt," Ms Brown says, pointing to the botched raid on an LGBTI bookshop in Melbourne, Hares and Hyenas, earlier this year as an example of the gay community's lingering distrust of police.
Ms Brown says some of the reforms requiring "urgent action" include "strengthening the LGBTI police liaison officer program, comprehensive LGBTI cultural competency training for members, and improving data collection for LGBTI hate crimes."
Liston describes the Tasty raid as "Melbourne's very own Stonewall moment" when the gay community "drew the line".
"It's become a symbol what is acceptable and unacceptable," he says. While much has changed for the better since that night, he agrees the struggle isn't over.
"We must still fight and we must never forget," Liston adds.
Seb Starcevic is a freelance writer and journalist. Continue the conversation @SebStarcevic